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Scandal that rocked the Victorian court; Playwright Tanika Gupta wanted to write "a multi-cultural costume drama" exploring the hidden history of Indians living in Queen Victoria's London. She talks to Catherine Vonledebur about her thought-provoking new play.

Byline: Catherine Vonledebur

MRS Brown, the Oscar-winning film, starring Judi Dench and Billy Connolly, examines Queen Victoria's relationship with her Scottish gillie, John Brown.

Tanika Gupta's new play, The Empress, could almost be a sequel. Set in 1887 - Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee - she explores the ageing monarch's deep friendship with her young Indian manservant, Abdul Karim, and how it nearly caused a constitutional crisis.

The Chiswick-born playwright blends the true story of Abdul Karim with the experiences of Indian nannies or 'Ayahs' who came to London during the 19th Century in her new production for the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon.

"Four and a half-years ago I approached the RSC about The Empress and they said: 'Yes let's do it'. It is part of Michael Boyd's final season," Tanika explains.

"I really wanted to write a costume drama with Asians in it - we did not all come over in the 1960s.

"It's quite mad - a big epic story with five major journeys.

"It starts on a ship with our main protagonists coming from India to England. They include 16-year-old Ayah Rani Das, the Viceroy's man Abdul Karim, Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian MP, and Gandhi. The story follows all these characters.

"Abdul Karim works his way up as Queen Victoria's Indian attendant.

"Like John Brown, Queen Victoria falls in love with him and promotes him to be her 'munshi' - or teacher. He teaches her Hindi and Urdu. It's all true.

"Her friendship with this young man caused a major constitutional crisis. When she dies he is sent back to India by the new King Edward VII and all his letters burnt. It is a hidden history."

In reality Queen Victoria was 68-yearsold in her Golden Jubilee year and had never recovered from the loss of her husband Albert 26 years earlier; her only other close male confidant, John Brown, had died in 1883.

Tall, handsome Abdul - played in The Empress by Tony Jayawardena - was only aged 24, when he arrived at the royal court. He enchanted the Queen and Empress, who had never visited India, with stories and legends from the land that was the exotic jewel in her crown.

The queen's intimate relationship with her manservant sent shock waves through the royal court - and ended up being one of the most scandalous periods of her 64-year reign.

In the role of Queen Victoria is Beatie Edney, the daughter of British actress Sylvia Syms.

Another important strand of The Empress is the story of Rani Das - actress Anneika Rose - a teenage Indian nanny or Ayah, who gets dumped by an English family at Tilbury Docks in 1887.

"There is not much written about Asian Ayahs. They didn't write diaries, most were illiterate.

"I wanted to see if I could tell a woman's story from this time.

"The inspiration for my play came from a remarkable but simple black-and-white photograph in a book, Ayahs and Lascars by Rozina Vishram.

"The photo was of a group of Asian Ayah's - or nannies - all sat around a Victorian drawing room, dressed in starched black uniforms.

"I was intrigued by these women and wanted to know more about what they were doing in 19th century London.

"Apparently many of them had been brought over from the 'Colonies' to look after English children and then dumped by their employers, leaving them destitute. You often see a dark skinned woman in the background of paintings in stately homes.

"Reading around the period I was amazed to discover Queen Victorian's friendship with her Indian manservant - Abdul Karim and how that friendship nearly caused a constitutional crisis.

"In the play Rani, the Ayah, ends up in a refuge run by missionaries in Hackney. Part of their remit was to provide Ayahs to people who wanted nannies. The organisation operated in East London until 1947. "There is a love story - between Rani and a sailor, Hari."

Tanika has always been interested in history.

She studied modern history at Oxford University.

But she says: "I have never written history plays. I have learnt more about history while writing this play.

"We do not know much about working class Indians in Victorian London.

"A lot of Indian revolutionaries were also in London in the 1890's, including Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who both studied at the bar. They learnt the tricks of the trade here in Britain.

"I never appreciated quite how important London was for the emergence of Indian nationalism."

The Empress is directed by Kneehigh Theatre's artistic director Emma Rice.

Emma and Tanika previously worked together on their 2012 production of the playwright's Wah! Wah! Girls at Sadler's Wells - a British Bollywood musical inspired by the world of the exotic Indian Mujra dancers.

Tanika says: "It's been wonderful having worked with each other before - when you are both telling a story you end up feeding off each other. It is both a bit nerve-wracking and exciting to be at rehearsals. To be in The Swan is a really great experience."

Emma adds: "The Empress is astonishing.

My breath was taken away when I first turned the pages of Tanika's gripping script. I gasped at the images, sounds, smells and colours of a time I thought I knew.

"Facts were re-drawn, re-written, and passions ignited. Here is an untold story that reaches out and drags us to a new understanding of Victoria, her empire and her legacy.

"This will be like no other costume drama you have ever seen. Throw away the history books you were fed at school and open your hearts and minds to an England they tried to hide, tried to ignore and even tried to burn."

The Empress is premiered at the Swan Theatre, as part of the RSC's 2013 Summer Season, until May 4. For tickets call the box office on 0844 800 1110 or visit www.rsc.org.uk.

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Tanika Gupta lifts the lid on Queen Victoria's relationship with Indian servant Abdul Karim in her colourful play The Empress.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 18, 2013
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